Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Author of Wench
Today we welcome Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench: A Novel, which we'll be reviewing in January or February. This book is Dolen’s debut novel published by HarperCollins. We’ll talk to Dolen about her writing, details of this novel, and what she’s working on for the future.
Welcome to The Book Connection, Dolen. We’re thrilled to have you with us. Can you please start off by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
Thanks so much for inviting me. I was born and raised in Memphis, TN. After graduating from Harvard, I returned to Memphis to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing. Later I received a Ph.D. in American Literature from George Washington University. Since then, I have mainly lived in Seattle and Washington, DC.
While Wench is your first novel, you’re not new to writing. Please share some of your accomplishments with us.
I have published a few short stories here and there--one titled "The Clipping" has received some acclaim. It was originally published in The Kenyon Review. It was reprinted in their volume Readings for Writers. In 2009, it was a finalist for the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Award and will appear in an anthology of the finalists to be published by Del Sol Press. I have also written academic essays pertaining to African American literature that have appeared in scholarly journals.
Can you please tell us about Wench?
In 1851, a lawyer named Elias P. Drake purchased a plot of land near Xenia, Ohio with the intent to establish a summer vacation resort where the country's elite could relax and enjoy the mineral springs in the area. At the time, it was believed that natural water could cure illnesses and bring about good health. What made this resort unusual, however, was that it became a popular vacation destination for southern slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. Ultimately, these flagrantly open relationships offended the northern abolitionists who also frequented the resort. After four years, the resort closed.
This part of the story has been confirmed by historians. I took this forgotten historical note and sketched in a fictional account of what it would have been like to be an enslaved woman traveling to this free state each summer. Why wouldn't the women try to escape? What kinds of emotional attachments did they have with these men? Initially, I believed that it was entirely possible that they actually loved the men. Ultimately, I discovered that it was much more complicated than that.
What inspired you to write this story of four enslaved women in the years prior to the American Civil War?
Once I discovered this resort--Tawawa House--I knew that I had to write about it. The historical footnote was too fascinating to pass up. I have always been the kind of author motivated by asking "why." My initial question was, "Why wouldn't they flee?" I knew that in order to answer this, I had to imagine myself into their hearts and minds. This story creates the kind of personal interior that historians can only surmise about actual historical persons who may have left behind little written record.
It appears this novel required a great deal of research since it is based upon an actual resort, and also because of the time period in which it is set. How did you tackle that research and when did you know you had enough information to begin writing?
Most of my research had to do with the period. I wanted to make certain that I got the dress right, for example. I spent a lot of time researching slave kitchens and southern plantation layouts. As a writer new to historical fiction, I quickly figured out that I had a lot to learn if I wanted to convince savvy readers. As for the actual resort, I did do a fair amount of research, but it had more to do with the details of the place. What would the men have hunted? What kinds of flowers grew there? I sketched the area where the resort existed so that I would know the proximity of the ravine to the springs, for example. By the way, I am very thankful to the librarians who helped me. I acknowledge them in my book. I love librarians.
Wench covers a very dark and difficult time in America’s history. Do you believe America has fully recovered from the atrocities that led to the Civil War?
I am a Southerner by birth, and so the obvious answer to that from my perspective would be no. In the South, its history is still very much present. It informs our daily lives, our culture, our speech, our manners. There is a part of me that does not want to use the word "recover." I am not sure what verb I would use. Have we fully acknowledged our pain? Have we reflected upon its darkest corners? I think there is still work to do. Even so, I love the South. I draw strength from my heritage, both the good and the bad.
Where can readers purchase Wench?
You can purchase online or at your local bookstore. It is available at Amazon.com and all the major retailers.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more information on the book?